A STRICT new national lockdown across England could remain in place until March with some measures lasting even longer, the Government has warned.

Severe restrictions, including the closure of schools to most pupils, have been imposed as the country struggles to control a huge increase in Covid-19 cases.

Cabinet secretary Michael Gove said he hoped curbs could be eased mid-February, but stressed that the time it took for the vaccines to take effect meant it was likely to be at least another couple of weeks before the third national lockdown could end.

Mr Gove said: “We can’t predict with certainty that we’ll be able to lift restrictions the week commencing February 15 to 22.

“What we will be doing is everything we can to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated so that we can begin progressively to lift restrictions.

“I think it’s right to say that, as we enter March, we should be able to lift some of these restrictions – but not necessarily all.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown in a televised address on Monday evening after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed a lockdown on Scotland for the rest of January, with a legal requirement to stay at home and schools closed to most pupils until February.

Schools and colleges in Wales will also remain closed until at least January 18 and move to online learning, while in Northern Ireland – which is already under a six-week lockdown – “stay at home” restrictions will be brought back into law and a period of remote learning for schoolchildren will be extended.

In his address, Mr Johnson warned the coming weeks will be the “hardest yet” but said that “with a fair wind in our sails” it should be possible to vaccinate 13 million of the most vulnerable people by mid-February, paving the way for controls to be eased.

He also finally conceded schools were ‘vectors for transmission’ of the coronavirus, hours after saying they were safe, would remain open and parents should send their children in.

Mr Gove said they had been forced to act with a “heavy heart” after the chief medical officers of the four nations warned there was a danger the NHS would be overwhelmed by the surge in infections caused by the new variant of Covid-19.

He said: "In the circumstances we felt that the only thing we could do was to close those primary schools that were open.

“Closing schools is really the very last resort.

“None of us wanted to do it.

“We all know why it’s so important that the children get the best possible education they can.

“But the chief medical officers of all parts of the United Kingdom judged yesterday that we needed to move to level five – the most severe level of alert against this infection.

“And, faced with that news yesterday, we were left with no alternative other than to take every step that we possibly could.”

With the Government acknowledging that exams will not be able to go ahead as planned in the summer, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will address a recalled House of Commons on Wednesday to update MPs on how pupils will be assessed.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, who called for a national lockdown at the weekend, has said he would support the Government’s introduction of the new measures.

He said: “It was inevitable we needed a national set of restrictions. That’s why I called for it.”

Sir Keir called for a return to the ‘all in this together’ spirit of last March, while urging the Government to ‘ramp up’ the national vaccination programme.

He said: "The Government has got to roll out the vaccination programme at speed and accelerate that.

“This is a huge challenge and I think we need to pull together.”